REVIEW OF BOTH KINDRED (Octavia E. Butler) & DREAD NATION (Justina Ireland)
It was just by chance that I happened to read Dread Nation and Kindred at the same time, but it was hard not to draw parallels between the two books. Issues of gender, power, and the complexities of race as well as strong female narrators bind the two across the vast distance of their publication dates. Both books have interesting layers, and comparing and contrasting them would make a great literary analysis essay, but as Trevor Noah would say, “Ain’t nobody got time for that.” Instead, here are some general impressions from a procrastinating CBR reviewer who finished both these books a few weeks ago.
Though I didn’t complete Kindred in time to participate in the CBR book discussion, it was interesting to revisit a book that I had read more than a decade ago. I remembered bits and pieces of it, but I had forgotten the feeling of claustrophobia I got following Dana Franklin, a person of color, as she is hurled back to the antebellum south. I thought immediately of the first episode of the tv show, Timeless, where one of main characters balks at piloting the time machine, saying to his boss:
Also, I don’t know how it works across the pond, but I am black. There is literally no place in American history that’ll be awesome for me.
To make things even more complicated, Dana, is drawn back in time by a blood connection—to Rufus Weylin, the red-haired son of a slave owner and the boy who will become the man who will become one of Dana’s ancestors. The first time, Dana is pulled back alone—to rescue Rufus from drowning in a river—and she soon realizes several things—that time passes more quickly in the past than the present, she has no control over when and where she is sucked into the past, and finally, that she needs to keep Rufus alive long enough so that he can father the daughter that will be Dana’s great, great grandmother (I think I have the right number of greats there.) This is weighty stuff, made all the more interesting by the fact that Dana’s husband, Kevin, is white and he gets pulled into the past too. Octavia Butler explores how different their time traveling experiences are—both because of race and gender—but also how powerful the effect of truly entrenched institutionalized racism is on both of them.
Written almost forty years later, Justina Ireland’s novel, Dread Nation, tackles the horrors of slavery from a slightly different and more Buffyied angle. In this alternate history, the Civil War comes to an end, not by the north defeating the south, but when the dead rise from battlefield and the living soldiers have to band together to fight off the zombie hoards. Slavery ends, sort of. Our heroine, Jane McKeene, is born in Kentucky the year the dead rise—the illegitimate daughter of a white southern woman. However, because of the Native and Negro Reeducation Act, she is sent to Baltimore as a teenager to a training school, Miss Preston’s School of Combat, to learn to fight off zombies. Jane is good at the fighting part but chafes at lessons in deportment and decorum. Rather than becoming a bodyguard to a wealthy white family, Jane plans to escape and return home to her mother in Kentucky. However, larger forces are at work that will soon put Jane and her friends in danger in ways they can’t even imagine.
I don’t want to give away too many plot points here since part of the fun of this book is how Ireland throws you into the action, right from the beginning. Zombies are slayed early on and the stakes are high. However, just like Buffy the Vampire Slayer was only partly about vampires and the hell mouth and as much a meditation on the hellish nature of high school and adolescence, so, too, is Dread Nation much more than Gone with the Wind with Zombies. It’s a frightening look at how issues of racial inequality would play out in this new timeline—in ways just as horrible and complex as it has in ours. This isn’t a flawless novel; things feel a bit rushed at the end (and yes, this is the first in a series). However, the characters and world-building more than make up for it. Also, there’s the kickass cover art.
Finally, I appreciate how both Octavia Butler and Justina Ireland use genre fiction to explore and express the dynamics of institutionalized racism and the legacy of slavery—dynamics that are just as complicated and toxic now as they were in the 1970’s (and the 1870’s).